“Nature and Happiness in Locke”

Thomas West, “Nature and Happiness in Locke” in The Claremont Review of Books, 19 Apr 2004.


Contrary to Zuckert, I agree with Strauss that Locke’s doctrine of natural law is not a moral doctrine in the strict sense, because Locke is unable to establish by mere reason the fact of a moral obligation, that is, a lawgiver who promulgates the law and punishes those who disobey it. Locke is able to show that the law of nature benefits all or almost all men. But he cannot show that it is promulgated (for only a small number know it in the state of nature). Nor can he show that it is enforced by the lawgiver (its enforcement in the state of nature is left up to every individual, which means that it will go mostly unenforced, as Locke admits).

My suggestion, then, is that Lockean natural law has a “utilitarian” foundation. The laws of nature are rules of convenience that are useful to human happiness. In this respect, Locke is still in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Hobbes, and most other major philosophers preceding Kant. Locke shares what Kant called the “eudaimonism” of that tradition, which Kant rejected, followed by Hegel and Marx. (“Eudaimonism” is “happinessism”—the view that the ultimate ground of morality and political right is human well-being.) That is, in this fundamental respect, Locke is closer to the classics, who also grounded natural right in a “utilitarian” way. In the end, according to this tradition, what is right is right because it is useful for human well being. (For example, in Plato’s Republic, book 9, and in the Protagoras, the virtues are good because they promote pleasure or happiness; in Xenophon’s Hiero, tyranny is bad because the tyrant is the most miserable of men.)

Claremont Review of Books